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Surfing Costa Rica – ¡Pura Vida!

Image Title: Catching the last wave [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Catching the last wave [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Long Boards - and Old Guys - Rule! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Long Boards - and Old Guys - Rule! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Boy's Surf Trip to Costa Rica [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Boy's Surf Trip to Costa Rica [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Diving Elephant Rock [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Diving Elephant Rock [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: El Crocodrilo de Estuary! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
El Crocodrilo de Estuary! [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

In early March of 2018 I went with a couple of buddies on a Boy's Surf Trip to Costa Rica.  ¡Pura Vida! is a Costa Rican catch-all phrase for “the Pure Life” or “the Good Life” or “Hello/Goodbye” or “Cheers” or just, “Let’s Chill”. And we really did just chill with great surf breaks, hot sand, cold beer, and lots of Vitamin D sunshine. Getting to Costa Rica is pretty straightforward from most major US cities with multiple daily flights into the two major cities, San Jose (SJO) and Liberia (LIR). We had one buddy fly through LA and two of us flew through Atlanta.  Flights were around $600USD and uneventful.  Clearing customs in the Liberia airport was trivial and the hotel shuttle really was running every 20 minutes as advertised.

After spending the first night in the Hilton Garden Inn by the airport, we took the complimentary shuttle from Vamos Rent-a-Car to their lot and picked up our mid-sized SUV with Surf Racks and headed West for the hour-long drive from Liberia to Tamarindo in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica on the North Pacific Coast. Tamarindo is the largest city in the region with a little over 6,000 permanent residents and double that with tourists during the high season from December to February.  Although Costa Rica is a beautiful country with many culture, wildlife, and adventure activities to enjoy, surfing is what put Tamarindo on the map. Playa Negra, Playa Tamarindo, and Playa Grande along with Witch’s Rock were featured in the Endless Summer II surf movie. Robert August from Endless Summer I settled in Tamarindo and has been custom shaping sweet surf boards right downtown ever since.

We elected to stay outside of the city at a VRBO house on Playa Grande, just ½ mile outside of Tamarindo if you walk along the beach and take the water taxi across the estuary.  The water taxi will charge you 500 Costa Rican Colon or $1.00USD. As a side note, the current exchange rate in March 2018 is 575 Colon to 1.00 USD, but the “Local Exchange” you should expect to get in shops and restaurants, for easy math is just, 500 Colon to $1.00USD.  The locals have a pretty good gig skimming a little over 10% just changing money for tourists, so beware. Having said that, US greenbacks are accepted everywhere as are US Credit Cards and everyone speaks much better English than any of the three of us could recall from high-school Spanish. Back to the water taxi across the estuary – pay the man.  DO NOT SWIM OR WALK ACROSS THE ESTUARY.  After three days, two of us decided to walk across the estuary at low tide, having determined the Crocodiles the locals warned us about were a tourist joke. Well, its not a tourist joke.  Besides discovering the estuary bottom at the mouth is like quicksand and sinking from our knees to our chests, four hours later on an estuary tour, we saw a 7 foot Crocodile sunning himself (herself?) right amongst all of the water taxis. PRO TIP: paying $20.00US each for an estuary tour is worth doing.  Go at high-tide so that you can get all the way upstream to the howler monkeys and keep an eye out for the crocodiles sunning on the shore.

Before we left home, we had reserved boards from Blutrailz Surf Shop in Tamarindo. Most of the surf shops will allow you to do a weekly rental at a discounted rate from the daily rate and give you in/out privileges to change boards. We had also arranged for Surf Racks which are just cross bars on our rental SUV, but we had to bring our own straps. The cross bars that came on our SUV had soft rubber tops for surfboards, but you may need to improvise with a towel or pipe insulation or foam noodles to protect the boards. With our boards loaded on our SUV, we drove 30 minutes around the estuary and checked into our VRBO, Casa Zen.  The VRBO prices around Tamarindo aren’t killer deal territory but they aren’t outrageous either.  We paid $400USD per night for four nights in a lovely four bedroom villa, just 100 yards from the beach, inside a gated community called Palm Beach Estates. Casa Zen came with entertaining Lemurs in the backyard at night and a friendly dog we nicknamed Pedro who hung out on the patio drinking beers with us every night. Playa Grande is a small community with a few small hotels and more private vacation villas than permanent residents. It is definitely more of a ¡Pura Vida! pace than Tamarindo, just across the estuary. We found three very good restaurants during our stay: Huerto’s, Hotel RipJack, and Hotel Bula Bula.  All three offered upscale meals – especially by surfer standards – at reasonable, but not cheap prices. In fact, the prices we found generally everywhere around Tamarindo were really comparable to what we see in Seattle. As a universal benchmark, a pint of beer will cost around 2,000 Colon or $4.00USD at the “Local Exchange” rate. The Costa Rican, Imperial Beer is available everywhere in bottles and cans and hits the spot well after a long day of getting worked by the surf.

Surfing. That’s why we came to this little corner of the world and we weren’t disappointed. Guanacaste Provence has miles (yes, miles and miles and miles) of beautiful beach breaks that have thousands of miles of uninterrupted fetch to develop bitchin waves just for you to enjoy as they pump up the gentle coast and break on the sandy bottom. To be fair, the three of us fall somewhere between beginner and intermediate as surfers. There is a pretty fine line between being a Newbie (hey, everyone has to start somewhere) and being a Kook or a Barney or a Quimby (you just can’t fix stupid). Anyway, after picking up our boards in Tamarindo and checking in to Casa Zen, we headed to Frijoles Locos Surf Shop in Play Grande to meet our surf instructor, JJ, to show us the local break and give us some beta on the breaks up and down the coast.  JJ was great and Frijoles Locos was awesome.  After spending a couple of hours with JJ a few things were pretty obvious: (1) the long boards we rented from Bluetrailz weren’t long enough for our skill level (see Pearl and Worked in Surf Slang Dictionary) and (2) Playa Grande offered plenty of Beach Break for us to surf right out of our front door.  So the next day, we loaded the boards and returned them to Bluetrailz with no hassle and rented [longer] boards from Frijoles Locos a little bit closer to home with the same exchange privileges. That afternoon all three of us were stoked to be catching waves and enjoying the sand and sun followed a few hours later by an evening of sunset surfing.  ¡Pura Vida! Baby.

The following day was probably the best day of the trip.  Two of us drove up to Playa Flamingo and SCUBA dove Catalina Island and Elephant Rock with Phil from Scuba Dive Costa Rica. Both were great dives and Scuba Dive Costa Rica runs a first class operation. That afternoon, we walked out our front door and again enjoyed catching wave after wave on our own private beach while we could see other surfers across the bay at Playa Tamarindo trying to find their own lanes on the party waves. The next day, for something a little different, we drove 90 minutes down the coast to Playa Avellena and once again, we weren’t disappointed. Although Playa Avellena was more crowded, the break peeled a little bit better than Playa Grande and we were able to watch some sick short-boarders drop in and cut back over and over. You know what surfers say, "If it swells - ride it!"

On our last day before driving back to Liberia to catch our flights home, two of us [mistakenly] walked across the estuary at low tide while one of us [smartly] paid the $1.00USD to the water taxi and we had breakfast in Tamarindo before taking a low-tide short tour of the Las Baulas National Marine Park, Estuary with Jorge, one of the water taxis. The estuary was too shallow at low tide for us to get all the way up to see the howler monkeys, but we did see the 7 foot Crocodile mentioned above. Scary! Depending on the season, you may also be able to see the majestic Leatherback Turtles nesting or hatching up and down the Playa Grande beach.

So that was our Boy's Surf Trip.  Our total cost for flights, lodging, food, board rentals and T-shirts was just under $2,000 each.  This could definitely turn into an annual winter getaway. For planning your own trip to Tamarindo, here are some good websites:

 Magic Seaweed: Surf Breaks and Current Conditions

 Witch’s Rock Surf Camp: Tamarindo Surf Camp

 Bluetrailz Surf Hostel: Downtown Tamarindo Surfer Lodging

 Real Surf Trips: Playa Negra Surf Camp

 Frijoles Locos Surf Shop: Playa Grande Surf Shop

 Surf Lingo Dictionary




[Disclosure: There were no goods or services exchanged for feature in this article]